Who is Bennett speaking to in the COP26 conference?

The prime minister is joined by a hefty delegation, including two key ministers: Karin Elharrar, energy minister, and Tamar Zandberg, environmental protection minister.

  PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett boards his flight to Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), October 31, 2021 (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett boards his flight to Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), October 31, 2021
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett knows that Israel should be raising its climate goals drastically, but the question hanging in the air is whether he is going to overrule a decade of gas-centric energy policies of his predecessor when he takes to the world stage on Monday at the UN Climate Change Conference, better known as COP26.

Here in Glasgow, far from the interference of the officials of the Finance Ministry who created and are currently reinforcing the gas monopoly as well as the secretive Katza oil pipeline deal with the United Arab Emirates, Naftali Bennett has said to confidants that Israel’s renewables goal is “al hapanim,” embarrassingly low.

The prime minister has two cards to use if he wants to avoid unilaterally making a dramatic decision and deflect attention: the first is to trumpet Israel climate technologies, even while knowing we barely implement any of them at home. And the second is to declare that by 2050, Israel will commit to zero emissions – as have dozens of other countries – but avoid making any difficult decisions that need to be implemented on his watch toward 2030 goals, which is the real benchmark.

The prime minister is joined by a hefty delegation, including two key ministers: Karin Elharrar, energy minister, and Tamar Zandberg, environmental protection minister.

Their personalities and leadership styles couldn’t be more different: Zandberg is an activist, has pledged to push through an expanded climate bill upon her return from the climate conference, and sought the position of the environment minister. Elharrar, an attorney who has devoted her life to fighting discrimination, is cautious, measured, and is taking her time to learn the energy issues while pledging to want to advance renewables in a responsible way.

 Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on October13, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on October13, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bennett, as prime minister, has largely respected the leadership of his ministers and would prefer they work out Israel’s climate policy between them. But this is a simplification. Short of a new government decision, Israel’s energy policy is actually made by a semiautonomous unit within the Energy Ministry that is controlled by the Finance Ministry. And this unit, the Public Utilities Authority, has for the past 15 years always applied the brakes to Israel making any major advances on solar power, which is the main renewables source that can drastically reduce Israel’s carbon emissions.

I know this from experience, having fought this regulator and eventually developed Israel’s first medium-sized solar field, the first large-scale solar field and the only Arab solar field, only to see that Israel has fallen short on even our modest 2020 renewables goals, which in 2009 national infrastructure minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer and I pushed through, in a government decision that the Finance Ministry largely torpedoed.

Last week, the state comptroller, in an unprecedented and stinging report, denounced the government and its ministries for doing essentially next to nothing in the decade since my partners and I connected the first solar field, this one at Kibbutz Ketura. Israel could have been 100% solar-powered during the day today, with lower energy prices and cleaner air, if there had been leadership a decade ago to stand up to special interests.

When Bennett steps up to the podium on Monday, no one is sure yet to whom he is really speaking. Is his audience primarily the Democrats, the White House and the European Union, all of whom are not happy with Israel’s measly 30% renewables goals by 2030? Or is the prime minister speaking primarily to a domestic audience, which is split between the narrow interests of the gas companies which oppose raising Israel’s climate goals and a growing constituency that cuts across the political spectrum of Israelis, mostly younger Israelis, who want to see climate leadership from this government of change?

What weighs most on the mind of the new prime minister may not be the usual considerations of the other nearly 200 world leaders who will join him on the climate podium, but unique national energy security considerations:

Iran’s proxy in Lebanon has 150,000 missiles pointed at Israeli critical infrastructure, including the gas rig off the coast of Zichron Ya’acov.

The prime minister’s National Security Council understands that a distributed energy network of solar fields with energy storage can keep the lights on and the water pumping, if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites and Hezbollah retaliates.

Stay tuned.

The writer is president & CEO of GigawattGlobal.